Tag Archives: elephants

Horrifying nights as I shared camp with Bwindi’s forest elephants

After being awarded an MSc research scholarship by ITFC, I immediately moved on to conduct my research on “Understanding the diversity, distribution and impact of canopy parasitic plants in Bwindi forest”. I therefore returned to ITFC in February 2011 to try out my research methods, before the actual research could start.

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

Phillemon (ITFC field assistant), myself and Silver (the UWA Rushamba outpost leader)

I must admit that at first I was afraid that the task ahead of me was very tough. It was going to require me to reach almost every part of this rugged and rough-terrained ‘Impenetrable’ park. But with the assistance of UWA and ITFC staff, I managed to visit my sample transect sites in the four major sectors of the park.

Terrifying  moments

One of the most exciting yet terrifying days of my life was in Rushaga (a sector of Bwindi) when I came face to face with Bwindi’s forest elephants in broad day-light! Then came the horrible night I spent with a mother elephant and her calf feeding just a few meters from my tent. Excitement and great fear for my life engulfed me. I was frozen in my tent. How was I to escape from this danger? Surely I was dead meat! Neither could I compose myself up to sleep nor could I seat up, or use my flashlight, or even make an alarm just for the sake of it. Remedy came only when I heard gunshots by UWA rangers outside my tent as they tried to scare them away. In a few moments I started hearing tree branches snapping away indicating that the elephants were leaving.

Another terrifying thing I wish to share with you are the stormy nights in the forest. Strong winds would blow across the forest canopy all through the night and I would hear branches falling near and on top of my tent. Remember that I was still struggling with traumas of elephants smelling my presence in the tent. I kept harboring thoughts of that moment when the elephant would sooner or later come, raze my tent down, lift me up in the air and then to tear me into pieces (with my tent).

One of our campsites in Bwindi

One of our campsites in Bwindi

My research assistants were equally worried. Their tent was only less than a foot away from mine. Trying to listen well they were so quiet that I began imagining they had decided to leave me there to die alone.
But thanks are to UWA guards who would spend the whole night scaring them away with gunshots in the air. What a fateful night I will never forget!

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

More often, parasitic plants were only to be located very high up in canopies such as this

Climbing and walking through rugged and rough terrain while keeping their eyes up in the canopy for parasitic plants isn’t any easy task at all.  I therefore wish to thank the ITFC members (Tumwesigye Philemon and Zoreka Damazo the field assistants, Arineitwe Colonel and Nkwasibwe Chrispine the hired casual labours)  whom I worked with. With their knowledge and experience in tree identification, I managed to quickly and easily collect my data. They tirelessly worked with me to learn more about the parasitic plants. They are all my masters and examples as far as forest activities are concerned.

It's not unusual to find such tree fall roadblocks in this region

At this moment please allow me to register my sincere gratefulness to ITFC and the McArcthur Foundation for supporting me morally, financially and academically for this study. 

An improvised bridge

Such moments are some of what makes Bwindi an exciting place to research. I would say I had some of my best lifetime experiences in Bwindi. I can’t wait for my next trip their in a few weeks.

Have you had such experiences like I did? May be you want to share with us?

 Emilly Kamusiime

Could Carapa seed studies aid forest conservation?

At the end of last month (June 2011), we hosted visiting researchers from the National Museum of Natural History Brunoy, France. Dr. Pierre-Michel FORGET (also past president of Tropical Biological Association in 2007-2009) was accompanied by research partners Dr. Irene Mendoza and Aisha Nyiramana (Ph D student, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and University of Butaré lecturer in Rwanda).

P.M. Forget and Aisha with Carapa grandiflora fruits in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

They were here to evaluate the feasibility of field work on the ecology of Carapa grandiflora (aka Carapa or African crabwood ) in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. During the one week in Ruhija and Rushaga, they traversed the forest searching for Carapa grandiflora trees and fruits. They succeeded in finding good sites for their study and Aisha Nyiramana will be returning to Bwindi to conduct her doctoral studies during the peak season (of Carapa seed production) in October.

The party gave us presentations about their studies and afterwards a brief interview with Bwindi Researchers’ Ivan Wassaaka. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Ivan: What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

P.M Forget: I have been studying the use of large-seeded Carapa tree species to protect and save biodiversity of tropical rainforests in Africa and America. So I came to Africa to study Carapa in different countries because there is larger diversity of Carapa on this continent. I have been in Cameroon, Mali, then also Nigeria, Rwanda, Nigeria and in 2006 in Rwanda (with Aisha who is doing her PhD). So I always looked forward to coming to Bwindi to do new studies in a new site.

Our main purpose of coming this time was to evaluate the field conditions and possibility of Aisha doing her PhD work in this park. She is doing a comparative study of Carapa seed distribution in Nyungwe Forest Reserve and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The reason she is doing this is because in Bwindi you have elephants which feed on the Carapa and therefore somehow act as agents in dispersing the seeds. However, this is not the case in Nyungwe.

Ivan: How hands-on is your study? What is the significance of this study?

P.M Forget: The relevance is that Carapa grandiflora is a vital Albertine rift endemic species. It is a dominant species in some areas. It forms a major part in the diet of some animals. In some places human beings feed on Carapa. There is serious competition for its fruits and because of the many species that enjoy it, there may be a threat to the plant’s survival. It is therefore important to have the necessary information about the plant, so that the right policy guidelines can be drawn since its existence affects many other organisms. It is almost pointless to conserve the animals (that feed in a tree) without conserving the tree that it feeds on. So in my studies, we are working on ways the conservation of Carapa grandiflora can give way to the conservation of tropical rainforests in general.

Broken Carapa fruits.

Ivan: But Pierre, why Carapa of all plant species?

P.M Forget: When I started my studies ten years ago, I started working on the seed dispersal by different animal species. Carapa was not my main area of study. It was just one of the many species I came across. However, the Carapa (genus) became more interesting to me because I frequently came across it in Africa and America. In my studies, it was very important to have a model species with different methods of seed dispersal. And for Carapa, there are different dispersal mechanisms but all falling in the same model, that’s dispersal by large mammals.

It is also very interesting to me working with a wide range of people from all over the world. We actually have a group of Carapa people working in Brazil, Senegal, Mali, and other tropical countries. We have also developed a website – Carapa.org where we list all the species that have been studies, Carapa uses, ecology, taxonomy, distribution, conservation, physiology, among other things.

Ivan (to Aisha): What brings you all the way to Bwindi?

Aisha: I have been doing an almost similar study in Nyugwe, about the dispersal on Carapa seedlings in the forest. But as it came out, Nyungwe does not have similar large animals like we have in Bwindi. And if you consider the characteristics of Carapa, the fruit is hard and mainly eaten by large mammals like elephants. Unlike Bwindi, there are no elephants in Nyungwe. These elephants (in Bwindi)  feed on the Carapa fruits and could be agents aiding in the seedlings dispersal. So as Forget has already said, my study will be a comparative study of the dispersal of Carapa grandiflora in Bwindi and Nyungwe. The recommendations coming out of my study will then be forwarded to the conservation managers for implementation where necessary.

Aisha Nyiramana in Bwindi. Note the Carapa seedling in the foreground

Aisha Nyiramana standing by a carapa seedling in Bwindi. ©Irene Mendoza

Bwindi elephant — a camera trap exclusive

Last year we set out camera traps at sixty locations for a month each. That’s part of the TEAM project we told you about. We got over 15,000 pictures. While some were empty or unclear, most had animals.   A total of 15,912 images were recorded in 1800 camera days.  10,029 images were useful (images of wildlife).  The animals identified included 24 species of ground dwelling animals (including mammals and birds). These included most of the species you would expect in Bwindi: Mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, duikers, pigs, civets etc. as well as a few less expected animals such as the honey badger and jackal.  We did a whole series of blogs on them last year.  But one animal eluded us entirely … how can you miss over 30 elephants in a forest the size of Bwindi?

Well this year we have started the cameras again. The first set of 30 cameras has been set out and the earliest ones have already been collected. Its always exciting to see what we have — so I persuaded Badru to pass over the files to me (he’s out in the field collecting more cameras).

So … guess what? We have quite a few animals and YES we have an elephant! CLOSE and BIG. Let me share a few pictures. The camera was spotted — luckily it survived.  Enjoy.

Let us know what you think!

Best wishes


Humans or Elephants – Who is wrecking the Forest?

Open ground due to trampling by elephants

Although human activity is blamed for causing significant loss of forest cover, few studies have documented the role of wild animals in altering, or indeed trashing, their own habitats.  Should we be concerned when animals do this?

While ranging in their forest habitat, elephants leave extensive damage wherever they go. Whether they carelessly or intentionally do this, we all agree that elephants open vegetation, trample, and even sometimes uproot plants thereby causing enormous damage. Even from a distance, you hear them snapping tree branches as they feed or move through the forest.

A patch of the forest opened by the elephant

Most of us know elephants to range in open savannah and can hardly imagine elephants moving around in an ‘impenetrable’ forest. Yet there is an estimated 35-50 elephants ranging in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. While moving within the forest, you won’t need great skills to tell where elephants have been as there are usually broken tree branches everywhere along their paths.

Fredrick Ssali has recently completed a MSc research project on “the Impact Of Elephants On Trees In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park”. Please see earlier blog introducing this study. His study has clarified this behaviour.

Fred’s study documented tree species, sizes and sites most affected by elephants in Bwindi. He recorded elephant impacts like bark stripping, tree toppling, breaking of branches and trampling over a series of 20 x 4m plots laid out along fresh elephant trails in four sites, varying in vegetation type. In each plot, all damaged and undamaged trees were identified, counted and their stem sizes measured. Of course this was done considering other environmental variables in the study area- the slope, aspect, altitude and tree cover.

ITFC staff assessing impact on trees broken by elephants

The study revealed that elephants are selective in how and where they feed; they target the large and usually less abundant trees for stripping off bark, and usually topple trees or break their branches, when small and abundant. Habitat change mediated by elephants may ead to increased habitat patchiness within the forest. The patches left behind by elephant destruction in Bwindi have usually not been regenerating to primary forest. Rather, frens and other quick growing plants tend to conquere and dominate the patches, thereby suppressing forest recovery. The consequences of this to the general ecology of the forest may be far-reaching but that may call for another study all together.

Some of the patches opened by elephants offer benefits. Other forest animals like the mountain gorillas prefer feeding from the herbaceous vegetation found in these more open areas.

It is a debate. If people were doing this we’d all agree they should be stopped. So, what about the elephants?  Are they wrecking the forest or contributing? As elephant numbers grow we may one day have to consider how many the forest can stand.

Ivan Wassaaka

(with input from Fred and Douglas)

Elephants in the Mists: a rare Bwindi sighting

This week a contribution of a former gorilla research assistant, with writer’s aspirations… obviously!

The sudden crash hit the forest floor like thunder in the near distance. The ITFC tracker and field worker stopped, causing the team to fall short inches from him. His quivering lips, widened eyes, and stiff stance warned us all. Even the strong Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guard with his long, threatening rifle and strict facial expressions, became uncharacteristically anxious. He grasped two of the researchers and held them back. Branches and bushes rumbled against the crashing sounds meters from us, on the thick forest floor. Our hearts pounded, some with excitement and others, apparent fear and caution. For most of us, we just stood in wonderment, waiting to hear the guide’s explanation. Could it be? Were we meters away from one of the most elusive, yet largest, creatures that inhabit the lush impenetrable forests that make up Bwindi’s National Park? That was the question going through our minds as we strained from the pushing, shoving and gentle grasp of our soldier and tracker. One thing was clear, they wanted to leave and fast!

Bwindi, as you can read from previous blogs, is home to many amazing, beautiful and mysterious creatures. From exotic butterflies to a variety of primate species, including the endangered mountain gorillas, the National Park is a treasure chest of information, exploration and wonder. That is why ITFC, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, hosted a small group of Rwandan mountain gorilla researchers and conservationists from the Karisoke Research Center, which is based in Rwanda as part of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. This exchange lasted for a weekend, where the group was split into two teams. One team would observe the Kyagurilo Gorilla Research Group while the other team went on a forest walk to Mbwindi Swamp. Teams would change the following day. And it was on this misty, Sunday morning that one of the teams would observe more than they thought on their forest walk.


From left to right: Alex, Joel, Felix and Medi walking in the Sunday morning mist so typical of Bwindi in rainy season

We walked along the steep paths that are typical of Bwindi, meandering our way down towards the famous swamp. The team explored the forests, seeing some interesting birds. In the background, the “booms” and “pyows” of blue monkeys followed us, echoing across the forest. As we neared the swamp, there were elephant signs–tracks in the mud, dung on the ground. While the elephants are difficult to observe, such signs are everywhere. Never did we, or anyone else, think that we would actually see these giants.

The tracker and guide told us that we needed to move away and quickly. We would not be able to continue along the path towards Mbwindi. The crashing continued. But our curiosity won us over as we crunched, stretching on our toes, together on a fallen tree stump in order to see the mystery behind the dense vegetation. And there he was–a bull elephant! He was just meters away. We could see his thick, grey back as he slowly made his way through the bushes. As we crept away, we noticed more elephants, higher up on the sloping hillside. The team found a spot, on the opposite slope, where we could observe the herd without disturbing them. Once in awhile, one would make a loud trumpet vocalization. I am sure they could sense our presence but they continued to feed. We passed around binoculars, eager to get a better view of these giant, yet peaceful, and intelligent creatures. The team sat for over an hour observing the herd; 13 elephants were counted, including some infants. The infants suckled. One juvenile used her trunk to throw dirt over her back, to help cool herself from the heat. The large clouds of brown, gritty dust encircled her, adding to the misty day. The other infants nestled between the females.




The above photographs were taken by Alexander Pinsker, from a great (safe) distance; excuse the quality!

There have been a few sightings of these elephants in Bwindi (several have been mentioned in past blogs). The population estimate was approximately 30 elephants through the National Park, however since they are so difficult to study this is just a rough number. Watching the 13 some elephants in front of us, we knew how lucky we were. We were also able to watch them for over an hour. It was more than we ever hoped to experience that day. The elephants are definitely one of the treasures that makes up Bwindi’s impenetrable realm.

Thanks to Joel Glick, one of the Karisoke visitors who was former assistant on the Max Planck Institute’s Mountain Gorilla research in Bwindi.

Bwindi elephant research: the experience of an ITFC sponsored student

Dear esteemed readers,

Allow me to register my sincere and hearty gratitude to ITFC for supporting me financially and academically in my study of elephant impacts on trees of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. I am indeed grateful.

I first came to ITFC in June 2009 as a prospective student following my application for scholarship and was given a warm welcome. The main aim of this visit was to discuss my intended project with the ITFC Directors and staff and also to gain first hand impression of the impenetrable forest since I had never been to Bwindi. I was pleasantly surprised to find good facilities at ITFC, notably, a rich library, spacious dormitory, comfortable vehicles, offices powered by solar and with fast internet, to mention but a few. In addition, I found that ITFC had welcoming and altruistic staff who guided me as I easily familiarised myself with the place and got ideas to improve my research proposal. After spending more than a week in Bwindi, I left ITFC determined to do my best to produce an improved proposal that would merit selection for ITFC scholarship. Thank goodness, my efforts were rewarded with this scholarship and I breathed a sigh of relief since I had found an ideal place to conduct research.

After being selected, I came back to ITFC eager to try out my research methods and find elephant ranging areas as well as clear elephant impacts along fresh trails. However, I feared that the task ahead of me was not going to be easy since Bwindi elephants had been little studied, so there was little information to guide me. I was helped by the people neighbouring the park, UWA rangers and the ITFC field assistants who volunteered information about elephants’ whereabouts and guided me in my quest. My fears were further heightened by the thought of going up and down the rugged terrain of Bwindi. In addition, I could not imagine myself deep in the jungle searching for these giant and potentially dangerous creatures. In a nutshell, my mind was kept busy with the challenges of study.

As if to confirm my earlier fears, the pilot study exposed me to the anticipated challenges posed by the rugged terrain of Bwindi. I found myself constantly stumbling, puffing, panting, gasping and sweating profusely during the first days of field excursion. One day while walking slowly behind my field guide, I paused and pondered what it would take to get the better of the hills, valleys and thick vegetation of Bwindi. I then gazed at the ITFC field guide ahead of me and couldn’t help but envy his ability to go uphill and downhill seemingly effortlessly. This prompted me to contemplate taking fitness lessons so as to be equal to the task since the going was getting tough day by day. Fortunately, I soon grew accustomed to the demanding field excursions and was able to complete the pilot study and field work successfully.

During field work, ITFC assigned me a hard working team of experienced field assistants that included Christopher Byaruhanga, Caleb Ngambeneza, Savio Ngabirano, and Beda Turyananuka. They knew the forest so well that many times the GPS was rendered unnecessary in locating the study sites. They also helped me in identification of trees damaged by elephants and the trees that were not affected at all. In addition, these field assistants were always good company. I recall vividly the nights we were in the forest camping and shared stories around the fire place as we warmed ourselves in an attempt to relax after a hard day’s work. This made the entire field work exciting and successful. I thank Christopher, Caleb, Savio and Beda for helping me during field work. They are my Bwindi grand masters!

The photos below highlight what transpired during field work;


Caleb (holding machete), Beda (blue sweater) and a ranger marvel at an open ground left by elephants digging up P. aquilinum rhizomes for feeding


Christopher prepares to measure the size of a tree toppled by elephants along the banks of river Nshongi


Caleb spreads out fresh elephant dung searching for seeds which passed through the elephant gut


Left to right: Christopher, Gerevasio (porter), Savio and Sepe (camp keeper) take a break on our way back from camping near Mubwindi swamp, an area frequented by Bwindi elephants

Results of this study showed that Bwindi elephants affected some trees more than others. This varied with species, size and location. In addition, elephant impacts varied with altitude and distance to forest edge. Given the restricted range that elephants use in Bwindi, it is likely that habitat change mediated by elephants may not homogenize the park’s vegetation but rather lead to increased habitat patchiness. There is need to mitigate wanton anthropogenic activities, such as wild fires, that would exacerbate the elephant problem in BINP.

Look out for my thesis abstract on www.itfc.org!

Fredrick Ssali

Trees, bees and elephants – the well connected forest

Ecologists sometimes like to ramble on about how everything is connected. Perhaps you know what I mean already. Ecology is all about connections.

Let me give you a taste now that I have finally taken some reasonable photographs for illustration (earlier ones were too blurry to share). I’m the rambling ecologist and the connections are a small sample of those here in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest World Heritage Site. The story takes us from elephants to bees and beyond via a tree ….

Elephants eat a lot of plant material every day. For elephants living in a tropical forest there are lots of plants to choose from. Some they seek out and others they avoid. These choices have their own implications.

There are a couple of big Symphonia globulifera trees that we often pass on one of the main trails in the forest below ITFC. Sometimes the trees drop their bright red flowers on the path encouraging us to look up into the branches. They’re tall trees.

It is a wet valley bottom with a mix of open vegetation and scattered trees. Elephants come here. We see their footprints in the mud.

One of Bwindi’s Symphonia globulifera trees. The lower bark has been removed by elephants.

Elephant damage on one of Bwindi’s Symphonia globulifera trees — see the small blob of yellow gum on the left edge!

These tree have been repeatedly tusked by elephants. The bark has been deeply gouged and has come away in large irregular patches. Presumably the elephants are eating the bark or the wet tissue beneath. It is no chance thing anyway — they come back and do it again and again. But somehow the trees are still alive.

Some of the trees’ wounds remain fresh. They exude drops of a vivid yellow gummy liquid — it looks bright like yellow paint. It is sticky to the touch and has no obvious smell to me. This is the trees’ way to protect itself from infections and opportunists like wood boring beetles. The gum seals the raw wounds.

Looking closely we can see that this yellow gum is visited by small busy insects. These are wild stingless bees about 4-5 mm long. They make their honey in nests in the forest (inside hollow trees and in old animal burrows).

The bees are carefully collecting the yellow gum and gathering it into balls on their back legs. Apparently (I’m told by a bee expert) they collect this as material with which to plaster the inside of their nests. Presumably the gum has useful structural and/or antibiotic properties that the bees value. They certainly spend a lot of time collecting it — they don’t hurry but slowly prod, poke and gather. It is a hazardous task dealing with this glue-like substance: one false step and they’ll be stuck forever to the tree.

Stingless bees collecting Symphonia gum in Bwindi 1

Stingless bee collecting Symphonia gum in Bwindi 2 – macro is not great but you get the idea

Stingless bees gather Symphonia gum 3

So the elephant damages the trees, the trees bleed and thus provide the bees with what they need to make their nests, and the bees make their honey.

You might also ask what other plants the elephants eat, and what other species that impacts. We could consider the  various other species that depend on the Symphonia trees and the species that the trees depend on: the birds which pollinate their red flowers perhaps, as well as the fungi and soil microbes these trees require for their roots to gather nutrients from the soil. We could also consider the stingless bees and their role in keeping the forest working: the flowers they visit and the plants that depend on them for their pollination or the animals that eat their honey. I’ve heard that the chimpanzees in the forest are very partial to this honey … I’ve also heard that the Mountain gorillas may eat it (others dispute this … it has never been reported by our local gorilla researchers).

In the old days the honey of the stingless bees used to be collected by the local Batwa pygmies (forest living people), and people of course used to hunt the elephants for ivory … so humans were pulling at both ends of the thread in this ecological tapestry. Perhaps we can remain connected by our knowledge and understanding. We are all part of the network.  But now I’m rambling on …

Best wishes


Exciting moments in the life of a tree-researcher!


My name is David Kissa Ocama, MSc student at the Institute of Environment & Natural Resources, Makerere University. I would like to share with you some of the field experiences of my research work in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park which is funded by the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation.

My research is on the abundance and spatial distribution of Myrianthus holstii, a tree that is important for animals and people alike. I selected three sites with different altitudinal range but similar levels of disturbance e.g. by herbivores (Elephants & Gorillas). I applied two different methods to estimate abundance and density; conventional plots along a belt transect as well as the so-called distance sampling method, using twenty four transects each 2km long.

No joke Bwindi is unique in all aspects and is very challenging when it comes to research right from plot design and field work. I can assure you during our transect cutting, some areas made me think that we were now Americans crawling in Afghan tunnels searching for terrorists! However, this was just the thick undergrowth of vines and shrubs as you can see in the pictures.

kissa1.png kissa2.png kissa3.png

a) David b) Ben and c) Christopher & Alex in the tunnels of Bwindi

One Sunday morning I went to a transect site near the ITFC Ruhija station where four Myrianthus trees were all bearing fruit. I climbed one to observe the fruits up close and I encountered tree flying squirrels eating them! They made a noise but ran away. Moments later, Guerezas (‘black and white’ colobus) arrived to have their breakfast. They managed to pick at least four ripe fruits before another scuffle started. This time, a troop of baboons arrived jubilating “whao…”. This time I and the “Guerezas” all jumped down onto our heels and scattered. With the other baboons looking on, two giant baboons decided to chase the coward taking off (= me!) for about 50 meters. See what risks we researchers take; if it had been wild Gorilla or Elephant looking for the sweet fruit, I might have perished.

kissa4.png kissa5.png

a) Raw fruit eaten by a squirrel (b) Myrianthus seedling debarked by Gorilla and Trampled by an Elephant

In Uganda, the distribution of Myrianthus holstii is restricted to the south-west, where human population very high. This research into the distribution of the species in the park is timely and the findings should guide management of the resource both in terms of its conservation and utilization. Local people are not allowed to harvest the fruits from the park, and have planted the trees near to their houses. So far, its fruits are just consumed at village level. Now people are asking park management for legal access.

It may not be just the sweetness of the fruits that people get from Myrianthus holstii; research on its roots showed they contain a 9284Da lectin myrianthin (MHL) that exhibits potent anti-HIV activity.


kissa6.png kissa7.png kissa8.png

David measuring browsed Myrianthus tree, debarked & what is my fate.

Hidden fruits sought by man and animals

I am happy to write you another blog that I hope you will enjoy. Maybe you thought I had run away from blogging, but that is not so. I have been busy assisting another research student, David, with his work in the field. Let me tell you about it.

This study will examine the distribution and abundance of the tree Myrianthus holstii in Bwindi. Myrianthus has round yellow fruits that are sweet when ripe and very much liked by the local people, who even plant these trees around their homes. In the forest these trees are sought by elephants and gorillas who feed not only on the fruit but also on the bark and leaves. During my time in the field with the elephant study that I wr0te about before we saw Myrianthus had been recently eaten by elephants on several occassions.


Myrianthus holstii with fruit

Some of our experiences during the Myrianthus study were quite scary. In this study we had to cut and follow straight line transects 2 kilometres long through difficult terrain using a compass. These are areas where gorillas and elephants range. We would often come across fresh trails of unhabituated gorillas and elephants as we worked and were often wondering if we would come face-to-face with them. In the thick vegetation it would be possible to get very close to an animal and not see it.

One day that I will not forget, is when we were out making our survey near the park boundary. Elephants had raided people’s gardens that previous night. The transect by chance happened to fall on the point where elephants had come out of the park. There was fresh dung and disturbed and broken vegetation everywhere. Everyone was nervous, even shaking, but we agreed to continue working. When we reached a point where we did not see fresh signs anymore, we dared to sit down for lunch, eager to eat our mandazis (doughnuts) and roasted groundnuts. We jumped off the ground when we suddenly heard the sound of trumpeting elephants (even though they were at a distance)! All went well that day and we reached our camp safely.

Another encounter happened some time later: we came across fresh signs of elephants and wanted to move a little distance away from it. But there was an adult elephant behind us trying to join the elephants that had passed, and two of us had not seen it. David, the student, called out. With help from the UWA ranger who works with us we were able to remain hidden from the animals and later continued the day’s work.

We have kept up our spirits and  gained good experience which will help us in the future. I hope to share more with you soon dear readers. The elephants and the gorillas are greeting you and I hope to hear your responses.


My quest to solve the mysteries of Bwindi forest’s giant cows

My name is Fredrick Ssali I am a Masters’ student at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. ITFC has given me practical, financial and academic support in my studies in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. I’d like to tell you a little about my work.

Cows are the largest domestic animals in areas around Bwindi and generally in south western Uganda. They are mainly kept for their products like milk and meat and the money that can be obtained after the sale of the animals or their products. The long history of the domestication and intimate contact with these herbivores has led to parallels being drawn with other large herbivores. It is therefore not unusual to find our people referring to elephants as ‘big cows’.

My ITFC research team and myself studying the impact of elephants on the forest vegetation in BINP has often been asked questions by the locals like ‘When are you bringing us milk from the field?’ We can only answer ‘may be next time’, ‘may be tomorrow’, ‘sometime next month’, among others.

In this study, I have had the rare privilege of encountering the ‘big cow’ of Bwindi. It was a memorable encounter, so fascinating that the entire research team (Christopher, Caleb, Caesar our UWA ranger based in Rushaga and I) had to spend over 40 minutes marveling at the giant (see also Christopher’s blog).

The elephant went about its normal activities seemingly not bothered by our presence. On our part, we kept our distance (about 10 m from the elephant) and communicated either by whispering or keeping our voices as low as possible. In addition, we were helped by the stable wind and thick vegetation that fairly concealed us from the elephant. We left the scene only after the elephant had gone over the hill and was no longer in sight.

This study has been relying on following fresh elephant trails characterised by snapped branches, uprooted trees, churned earth and unmistakably large piles of dung. We have sometimes unknowingly come close to the elephants only to be rudely alerted of their presence by the sudden sound of breaking wood as boughs are torn off trees by the animals in their haste to move away. The rangers and field assistants have helped calm my nerves especially after these close encounters. Definitely my heart skipped some beats but we have always come out with the data I need to write up my thesis.

Below are pictures taken in the course of this study. They show elephant signs and different forms of imapacts visited by elephants onto the forest.

Picture 1: Elephant foot marks left in Mubwindi swamp

Picture 2: Elephant dung found in Rushaga

Picture 3: Debarked stem found in Kanyabukyere near Ndego gate

Picture 4: open ground due to trampling by elephants

Thanks for journeying with me along the elephant paths. I hope to tell you more when I have done my analyses.

By Fredrick Ssali